Dalvin Cook, Derwin James earn PFF's preseason All-ACC honors
The ACC has a bounty of talent across the board heading into 2016. Few conferences can compete with the quality at quarterback and amongst the offensive skill positions players. On the other side of the ball, the depth on the defensive line and in the secondary stand out. Nine ACC stars made our All-American preseason team, including the nation’s top quarterback Deshaun Watson.
Let’s take a look at the top talent at every position, along with a second-team selection:
Quarterback: Deshaun Watson, Clemson
Watson may not have received the highest passing grade – ranking seventh amongst returning quarterbacks in 2015 – but his hot streak to end last season rightly convinced many of his elite talent. Carrying Clemson to within a whisker of a National Championship against one of the best defenses in the country rarely goes unnoticed. The Crimson Tide crashed into Watson in waves, yet the Tigers’ quarterback stood firm on the biggest stage. He recorded one of his highest grades of the season despite pressure, completing seven of 13 attempts for 102 yards. Generally, it’s a key area Watson needs to develop (68.0 QB rating when disrupted), but it may be the only area. He shows impressive movement in the pocket, can throw with touch or power and is accurate at every level of the defense, sideline to sideline. Clemson might be favourites for the championship with Watson at the helm.
Second-team: Brady Kaaya, MIA
Running Back: Dalvin Cook, FSU
A highlight tape composed of Dalvin Cook’s positively graded runs would be extensive. The best plays would impress even the biggest NFL sceptic. Cook’s combination of balance, vision and acceleration make him the nation’s most elusive back. Any conversation about the top pure rushers in the FBS has to include Cook. Unfortunately, his lowlights are both ugly and frequent, particularly in the passing game. Cook made 15 major errors in 2015, giving up eight pressures, fumbling three times and dropping four passes. His ball-security could certainly use some work. Despite those negatives, Cook is a playmaker of the highest quality. He’s a few improvements in the passing game away from elevating himself into college’s top echelon.
Second-team: Elijah Hood, North Carolina
Wide Receivers: Mike Williams, Clemson and Isaiah Ford, Virginia Tech
Despite below-par quarterback play last season, Isaiah Ford still hauled in 75 catches from 127 targets for 1,164 yards and 11 touchdowns. Speed is one of Ford’s greatest strengths, enabling him to generate the separation required to rip off long gains. Overall he hauled in 41.7 percent of downfield targets (8th), catching 15 balls for 517 yards and five touchdowns. Joining him, Mike Williams’ supreme talent sees him slot right back into the ACC’s All-American team, despite missing the entirety of 2015 with a neck injury. As a sophomore, he caught 56 passes for 1,015 yards and six touchdowns. Williams also broke a tackle once every five receptions, finishing with 11 on the year.
Second-team: Jamari Staples
Slot Receiver: Khermit Whitfield, FSU
Wideout is one of the deepest positions in the ACC. Two of the three to make this list were overlooked in the media’s team at the ACC kickoff event. Whitfield nabs the last remaining spot over teammate Travis Rudolph, ranking a full nine places higher in inter-conference receiving grade a season ago. Working predominantly from the slot, he hauled in 57 passes for 790 yards and six touchdowns. Whitfield’s short-area quickness makes him particularly suited to a role on the inside, highlighted by the 11 broken tackles he managed in 2015. Competition will likely be fierce for the end-of-season spot, with competition from the likes of Stacy Coley, Ryan Switzer and Hunter Renfrow.
Second-team: Stacy Coley, Miami
Tight end: Jaylen Samuels, NC State
Samuels is not, strictly speaking, a tight end. Positional versatility is one of his greatest strengths. He can line up in the backfield, in-line or split wide. Samuels is no gimmick, functioning effectively in each of the diverse roles. A top ten tightend a season ago, ranking tied for ninth overall with Hunter Henry, Samuels is already one of the best pass-catching threats in the FBS at the position. He snagged 85.5 percent of targets last season, the highest figure in the nation amongst tightends with at least 40 receptions, hauling in 65 balls for 603 yards, seven touchdowns and 13 broken tackles. Shaking defenders off in the space afforded out wide is one thing, but Samuels also managed to break 13 tackles on his 55 carries, adding a further nine scores. Feeding the Wolfpack’s top offensive weapon has to be a priority in 2016. Like all good hunters, he isn’t fussy how his next meal comes.
Second-team: Bucky Hodges, Virginia Tech
Offensive Tackles: Adam Bisnowaty, Pittsburgh and Roderick Johnson, FSU
Depth is an issue for the ACC at tackle, but there are a handful of supremely talented prospects in the pipeline. The Panthers’ Bisnowaty made the FBS’ third-team, after a season in which he ranked 13th amongst returning tackles. He allowed only 12 combined pressures in 2015, displaying the athleticism required to holdoff the talented slate of rushers he came up against. Pittsburgh’s smashmouth style suits Bisnowaty, who is one of the more physical tackles in the FBS. Physicality is also a feature of Roderick Johnson’s game. Although he’s still inconsistent in pass protection, ranking negatively in that facet of play in 2015, Johnson has all the tools to become a dominant tackle.
Second-team: John Heck, North Carolina
Offensive guards: Tony Adams, NC State and Wyatt Teller, Virginia Tech
The talent at guard in the ACC drops off considerably after the top two. Adams is the more complete player, earning solid grades in both key facets of play. He allowed only 15 combined pressures (five knockdowns) in 2015, ensuring plenty of time for Jacoby Brissett to step into his deep balls. He’s equally adept in the run game, recording a top 20 grade last season. Wyatt Teller is more one-dimensional, but he’s an ideal tone-setter for an offense intending to exert their will. So much so, he made our All-American first team after posting the top returning run blocking grade amongst Power-5 guards.
Center: Lucas Crowley, North Carolina
Indiscipline aside, Crowley is one of the nation’s top centers. The anchor of the Blue Devils’ line managed the third-best run blocking grade amongst returners, controlling tackles and linebackers with ease. Crowley’s overall ranking was hampered significantly by 11 penalties, the second-worst discipline record at the position, as well as a slightly negative pass protection grade. Conceding 15 pressures is far from ideal, especially when seven of them are knockdowns. Still, Crowley’s impact plays far outweigh the mistakes.
Second-team: Jackson Matteo, Virginia
Edge defenders: Devonte Fields, Louisville and DeMarcus Walker, FSU
The ACC may not possess a ton of household names in the pass-rush department, but there is a genuine sense an outstanding generation is just about to emerge. Devonte Fields is unblockable at times, ending last season on fire. In his last three games alone, he registered eight sacks, three hits, four hurries and three batted passes. Sustaining that form over the course of a season will not be easy, but Fields has the freakish talent necessary to achieve that level of performance. Walker, meanwhile, looks capable of becoming a genuinely terrifying presence off the edge. He certainly contributes plenty of splash plays, finishing with 11 sacks, ten hits and three forced fumbles.
Second-team: Harold Landry, Boston College and Duke Ejiofor, Wake Forster
Interior defenders: DeAngelo Brown, Lousiville and Nazair Jones, North Carolina
The situation at defensive tackle is equally crowded, with a number of players jostling for just two spots. Louisville’s DeAngelo Brown has the prototypical run defending traits of a nose tackle, but also surprising quickness for a big man. He although he is most effective around the line of scrimmage, holding his ground against double teams, Brown is not incapable of getting upfield. The Cardinals’ tackle ranked third in the conference with 20 combined pressures last season, proving his potential. Beside him, Nazair Jones’ production suggests his upside is even higher. As a redshirt sophomore, he managed top six grades against both the pass and run, registering 22 stops and 14 pressures.
Second-team: BJ Hill, NC State
Linebackers: Matt Milano, Boston College and Keith Kelsey, Louisville
The Eagles’ reputation for producing linebackers is well-deserved. Matt Milano adds to the ever-growing list. Boston College’s starting strongside linebacker can play all three facets better than the majority of FBS’ linebackers. He is a block-shedding machine, finishing with the top run-defending grade amongst returners a season ago. Milano’s also capable of punishing quarterbacks with well-timed blitzes and covering tightends down the seam. Keither Kelsey was solid, if unspectacular, in an every-down role for the Cardinals last year. He allowed a QB rating of only 89.6 and amassed an impressive 46 stops in 2015. With three All-Americans heading into the season, Louisville fans should expect a dominant front seven.
Second-team: Connor Strachan, Boston College
Cornerbacks: MJ Stewart, North Carolina and Cordrea Tankersley, Clemson
New quarterbacks get little chance to adjust to the college level in the ultra-competitive ACC. North Carolina have perhaps the best pair of starting corners in the nation, yet only one makes this list. Stewart is a phenomenal corner with the flexibility to play inside or out. He gave up a QB rating of only 39.8 last season, getting his hands on 16 passes (four interceptions). Like Stewart, Tankersley has the talent to hold his own on the perimeter, even when isolated in press-man with no safety help. He was tested early and often in Clemson’s stacked secondary, responding with five interceptions and eight pass deflections in 2015. Quarterbacks were rarely successful targeting Tankersley (42.4 QB rating allowed), who should only get better his senior year.
Second-team: Des Lawrence, North Carolina
Slot: Chuck Clark, Virginia Tech
Clark is more of a safety than a corner, thriving in the box and around the line of scrimmage. The nickel role suits him perfectly, with his combination of coverage instincts and physicality. Clark is certainly not afraid of mixing it with the big boys, topping our cornerback rankings with 28 defensive stops. He also cracked the top ten in tackling efficiency, displaying the ideal balance of aggression and reliability against the run. Although he’s at his best in traffic, Clark also has the quickness to stick with receivers in the slot.
Safeties: Derwin James, FSU and Jordan Whitehead, Pittsburgh
Not many players can handle deep centre field responsibilities, as well as consistently pressure the quarterback. James is one of the few. His 22 combined pressures standout, but his pass-rushing skills are only a bonus. Thankfully, James measures up well in the more traditional aspects of safety play. He allowed a QB rating of only 62.3, giving up just 16 of 34 targets for 171 yards. Pittsburgh’s Whitehead is not the flashiest of safeties, but is a fine player in his own right. Despite playing on a defense largely devoid of talent, he allowed a QB rating of just 63.6, managing a pick and two pass deflections on just 31 targets.
Second-team: Nate Andrews
Kicker: Michael Badgley, Miami
Badgley was easily the most consistent kicker in terms of field goals last season, hitting on 25 of his 29 attempts. He missed just two shorter than 50 yards, holding his nerve when needed. Badgley lacks the leg to generate touchbacks on a consistent basis, but is the most reliable when it comes to putting three points on the board.
Second-team: Joey Slye, Virginia Tech
Punter: Nicholas Conte, Virginia
None of the ACC’s returning punters graded positively in 2015. Cole is the best of an underwhelming bunch.
Kick Returner: Nyheim Hines, NC State
Hines amassed a conference-high 891 yards on kick returns last season, averaging 27.0 per attempt. He also busted off a 102 yard return for a touchdown, highlighting his game-breaking ability.
Second-team: Michael Walker, Boston College
Punt Returner: Bra’Lon Cherry, NC State
Back-to-back Wolfpack take the two returner slots. Cherry, like teammate Hines, also managed a special teams touchdown. When he wasn’t taking it the distance, Cherry consistently flipped field position for the Cardinals. On his 27 returns, he managed 413 yards, averaging an impressive 15.3 yards per attempt.
Second-team: Brisly Estime, Syracuse
Special teams: Dorian O’Daniel, Clemson
Part of the excitement around O’Daniel’s potential on defense surrounds his production on special teams. Only Western Kentucky’s Drew Davis managed more tackles, and his total of 18 was accompanied by four misses. O’Daniel is a one-man kickoff wrecker.
Second-team: Matt Milano, Boston College